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Carmelo Anthony and the Knicks Need to Break Up

The Knicks’ best course of action is breaking up with Carmelo Anthony and focusing on the future, writes Tommy Beer.

Tommy Beer

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A few years ago, prior to his celebrated arrival, the city, the team, the owner and the fans all coveted the player.

The feeling was most certainly mutual. The player openly reciprocated their affection.

They wanted to unite, and were determined to find a way to make it happen.

The love affair actually began nearly three decades earlier. The player was born in Brooklyn and spent his adolescent years there. That’s where he first fell in love with the city’s game.

The player eventually moved away, spending his formative years in West Baltimore. As the player matured, his game developed. His name gained prominence, and his native city and the fans back home took notice. It seemed destined that they would someone day reunite.

By the winter of 2011, they both were unwilling to wait any longer. The time had come.

However, more than 2,000 miles separated them. The player lived and worked on the opposite side of the county, in Denver, Colorado. But that was simply a speed bump in the way of their reunion. Nothing was going to keep them apart – not geographical distance, a salary cap, future draft picks or a pending lockout.

On February 22, 2011, a trade was consummated. The city was ecstatic. The owner was overjoyed. The fans sang and danced, and cheered his homecoming.

The honeymoon period was wonderful. The player was treated like prince. Interest in the team increased immediately, and exponentially. Jersey sales skyrocketed. During the 2012-13 campaign, the team reached heights it hadn’t experienced in decades. They captured the Atlantic Division crown and won more than 50 games for the first time in since 1997. The player emerged as a legitimate MVP candidate. The team finally advanced past the first round of the playoffs. The future seemed so bright. This was how both sides had dreamt it would be all those years ago.

But then, last season, the train slowly began to tumble off the tracks, eventually derailing on the outside of the playoff picture looking in. As the relationship screeched towards its nadir, discord and drama returned to the team. Losses piled up. Frustration grew. Both the player and team said all the right things in public, but the future of the marriage was now in doubt.

It is still fairly obvious that both parties still care a great deal for each other. In an ideal world (one with salary caps and luxury taxes), they’d stay together, happily ever after. They would jointly fight for a fairy tale ending, hoping to experience more signing, celebrating and eventually maybe even a parade.

But today’s NBA, and its strict salary structure, has no room for such sentimentality. And because of that harsh reality, the player and the team/city/fans may need to break up now, if they expect to find happiness and success in the future.

***

As we know, Carmelo Anthony has already opted out of his current contract with the New York Knicks. Beginning July 1, Anthony can meet with other teams as he attempts to determine where he will spend the remaining prime years of his career. It will be a difficult decision for Anthony. There are plenty of ‘pros and cons’ for staying in New York. However, just as importantly, there is also a case to be made for and against the Knicks offering Anthony major money to re-sign.

Let’s start with the facts: Anthony is one of the NBA’s better players. Despite the Knicks’ terribly disappointing 2013-14 season, Anthony did all he could to lift New York out of the doldrums. The all-around, individual statistics ‘Melo posted were incredibly impressive. Anthony became the first player in over a decade to average at least 27 points, eight rebounds and three assists per game throughout a full NBA season. He was also remarkably efficient on the offensive end of the floor. In fact, he became just the fourth player in NBA history to average over 27 points a night while shooting above 45 percent from the floor, 40 percent from the field and 82 percent from the free-throw stripe. The other three members of that incredibly exclusive club are Larry Bird, Michael Jordan and Kevin Durant.

Nonetheless, one number that can’t be ignored is “37.” That’s the total number of wins the Knicks tallied last season. And “zero” is the number of postseason games they participated in. Somehow, New York managed to miss the playoffs despite playing in an embarrassingly weak Eastern Conference.

Phil Jackson has inherited the Knicks just as they are approaching a major, franchise-changing fork in the road. Within the next couple of weeks, Anthony’s future will be determined. And that decision will have an immediate and enormous impact on the short- and long-term future of the Knickerbockers organization.

If Melo re-ups with New York, Jackson and company will surely make a full effort to surround Anthony with a bevy of complementary pieces, most likely veterans, that give the Knicks the best opportunity to win right away. The plan would be to fully maximize the small window of opportunity encompassing Anthony’s prime.

Conversely, if Carmelo signs somewhere else, the Knicks would likely look to ride out a rough 2014-15 season, keeping their eyes on the prize: The summer of 2015. New York owns their first-round pick in 2015, which would likely be a lottery pick if Anthony was not on the team. More importantly, New York will have an enormous amount of cap space to spend on free agents next summer, when some prominent players will be available on the open market. Kevin Love, LaMarcus Aldridge, Rajon Rondo, Paul Millsap, Marc Gasol, Al Jefferson, Tony Parker, Goran Dragic, Roy Hibbert and DeAndre Jordan among others may be up for grabs as unrestricted free agents in 2015. (And Kevin Durant is due to hit free agency in 2016.)

Let’s approach this dilemma from a different angle. The goal of the Knicks should be winning an NBA championship, correct?

Although it seems counter-intuitive, if the Knicks’ ultimate ambition is to win a title, then refusing to re-sign their best player to a max contract may be the most reasonable route towards that ultimate destination.

It would surely set the team back in the short-term; there is absolutely no denying that. Keeping Carmelo would probably ensure the Knicks remaining competitive next season and for a few seasons thereafter.

However, there is an old cliché in the NBA that stipulates that in order for a team to reach heaven, they have to go through hell.

Would re-signing ‘Melo to a max deal simply prolong the Knicks’ period in purgatory? Would giving Anthony max money increase the likelihood of New York consistently finishing somewhere in the middle of the pack in the Eastern Conference, while simultaneously decreasing their chances of evolving into an elite, championship-level team?

Despite undeniable individual greatness throughout the entirety of his career, Anthony hasn’t found much team success in the postseason. Carmelo completed his 11th NBA season last April, and he has only won a total of three playoff series during that entire tenure. His team has won only 23 of the 66 playoff games he has competed in (a 34.8 winning percentage). That’s one the worst individual postseason records in NBA history among players that have appeared in at least 50 playoff games.

Obviously, all of those losses can’t be pinned directly on Anthony, but they are an undeniable part of the picture, and these facts have to be taken into account when determining Anthony’s ultimate worth. If we highlight the positives (scoring titles, All-NBA Team nominations, etc.) and give him credit for carrying teams into the playoffs, we have to hold his feet to the fire for failing to consistently deliver on the NBA’s biggest stage.

Anthony recently celebrated his 30th birthday. How many players perform far better in the 30s than they did in their 20s? If Anthony hasn’t been good enough to be the best player on championship team yet, does it make sense to believe he’ll start doing it now?

Anthony is talented enough to be a key contributor on a title team; however, it’s not wise for Jackson to assume a 31-year-old Anthony can be the highest-paid, best player on championship squad.

And make no mistake, if he signs for the max, he’ll be the team’s highest paid player by a wide margin. Examining exactly how much ‘Melo can be paid is a bit sobering for even the most dedicated Anthony supporters. If New York gives Carmelo the maximum allowable raises, here’s what Anthony’s annual salary would look like:

2014-15 season: $22.457 million
2015-16 season: $24.141 million
2016-17 season: $25.825 million
2017-18 season: $27.509 million
2018-19 season: $29.193 million

By the fifth and final season of a potential new max contract (after he had already celebrated his 34th birthday), Anthony would make over $29 million.

How effective and efficient will Anthony be at 33 years old? What about 34 years old?

Anthony entered the league as a teenager. He now has 11 full seasons worth of wear-and-tear on body. In addition, last year was exceedingly taxing. Former head coach Mike Woodson, desperate to save his job, rode Anthony relentlessly. Carmelo led the NBA in minutes played, averaging nearly 39 minutes a night. And it’s not solely the sheer volume of minutes that’s distressing; the Knicks leaned heavily on Anthony whenever he was on the floor. He’s always been the focal point of New York’s offensive attack, and in recent seasons he’s also been forced to guard bigger and stronger power forwards on a nightly basis.

How will Anthony’s aging body respond? This is a question Jackson has to ask himself.

Consider this: Last season Anthony became just the second player, age 29 or older, since 2010 to log over 3,000 minutes in one season. The only other player to have matched that feat is Kobe Bryant, who played over 3,000 minutes in 2012-13. (As we know, Bryant tore his Achilles in April of 2013 and managed to play a total of just six games in 2013-14 before a knee injury ended his season).

Nonetheless, let’s take an optimistic approach and a assume Anthony does not slow down and maintains his elite level of production. It’s probably safe to assume the Knicks will bounce back into the playoffs next season. Trading away Tyson Chandler cost them their best defensive player, but they got back a massive upgrade at the point guard position in Jose Calderon, which was a necessity. And based on the talent level on the Knicks’ current roster, they should certainly win more than 37 games. But what is their ultimate upside. Even if they snag a very good player with their mid-level exception (rumors of Pau Gasol taking a huge discount have been floated recently), how good could this Knicks team be? What is the best-case scenario?

With LeBron James, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade opting out of their contracts this past weekend, it appears Miami is re-tooling for another few years of Eastern Conference dominance. Not to mention the bevy of stacked teams in the West. Would even the biggest Knick fan argue that the 2014-15 Knicks will be a serious contender for the crown?

When taking the fiscal reality of today’s NBA and the big picture into account, the Knicks’ best course of action is swallowing some unpleasant medicine, tanking in 2014-15 and focusing on the future.

Anthony previously declared he would be willing to take less than the max to stay with the Knicks, and Jackson has wisely alluded to Anthony’s pronouncement. But exactly how much money is ‘Melo willing to leave on the table? The only significant advantage New York has over Anthony’s other’s suitors (Chicago, Houston, etc.) is their ability to pay him $33 million more. The other teams have far better supporting casts, better players with proven playoff experience. In addition, the Knicks’ rebuilding effort would receive a major boost if both the Bulls and Rockets were dueling for Anthony’s services, and offering competing sign-and-trade packages in hopes of sealing a deal with Carmelo.

Even if Anthony gives the Knicks a moderate discount, the savings likely won’t be enough to offset the potential pitfalls.

The most prudent plan would likely be sacrificing short-term success to reap long-term rewards.

If Anthony is not taking up $22+ million, New York could be looking at upwards of $40 million in cap space, which would allow them to go on quite the shopping spree next summer. Of course, they won’t have to spend it all in one place (or on one player). Smart organizations understand the true value of cap space is that it presents opportunities to trade for high-priced players, as well as sign top free-agents outright.

And, as has been noted before in this space, this is where the presence of Jackson makes things that much more interesting. Prior to Jackson’s arrival, extreme trepidation toward trusting the Knicks’ front office to successfully navigate free agent waters was understandable. However, with Jackson calling the shots (as opposed to owner Jim Dolan or CAA, etc.), the chances of the Knicks completely striking out in free agency are greatly decreased. NYC is a far more desirable location for prospective players now that Jackson is the new face of the franchise.

A common counterargument from the “keep Carmelo at all costs” camp is that free agency is too much of a crapshoot and it’s unlikely that New York would be able to reel in a player on par with Anthony no matter how far below the cap they get.

Well, the fact of the matter is that the Knicks would not necessarily have to sign a player better than Anthony in order for them to improve their overall roster. With mountains of cap space, the Knicks could construct a “team” that was far more balanced and not reliant on a single scorer.

If the free agent class of 2015 is star-studded, and the Knicks had more cap space than any team in the NBA, what kind of team could Jackson put together? Furthermore, Jackson is already off to fine start, reeling in a 2013 first round pick with enticing upside (Shane Larkin) and receiving the good fortune having another player with first-round talent (Cleanthony Early) fall into his lap with the 34th overall pick in the 2014 draft.

Clearing and preserving cap space by letting Anthony walk is an inherently risky proposition, but if you have a competent front office in place (not a maverick owner masquerading as a GM), the risk is minimized.

Even if Anthony signed for “only” $115 million (roughly $15 million less the max), would that be the most efficient allocation of New York’s funds? For argument’s sake, which would be the better investment: The possibility of committing to pay a player such as Kevin Love $18 million per season in his mid-20s or paying Anthony $23 million at age 32?

Or what about a spending the money earmarked for Anthony on some combination of Goran Dragic, Marc Gasol and Danny Green?

Many max contracts are celebrated on signing day, but then viewed with remorseful regret a few years down the road.

These are the issues Jackson has surely been mulling over since moving to New York. It will be fascinating to watch how Anthony and the Knicks interact over the next 10 days. The final chapters have yet to be written. How will this story end? Will this be their last dance?

***

The player and the team/city/fans have had a fun, enjoyable run. Like any relationship, there were highs and lows, but it was ultimately satisfying and beneficial for both parties. Studies show that financial troubles, and the resulting disputes, are one of the primary causes of divorces in the United States. Nonetheless, it’s never easy to say goodbye.

Still, sometimes it’s best to realize and acknowledge that a relationship has run its course. It’s not the fairy tale ending either side was hoping for, but it’s time for the player and the team to go their separate ways.

 

Tommy Beer is a Senior NBA Analyst and the Fantasy Sports Editor of Basketball Insiders, having covered the NBA for the last nine seasons.

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NBA DAILY: Free Agent Watch – Point Guards

Shane Rhodes starts off Basketball Insiders’ new “Free Agent Watch” series, looking at the best free agent point guards set to hit the market this summer.

Shane Rhodes

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We’re in the home stretch!

It’s July, and the NBA is set to reconvene in just 26 days — of course, those may be the longest 26 days in recorded history, but the wait is sure to be worth it. Soon enough, and Adam Silver will have crowned the next NBA champions.

Of course, the postseason should come-and-go in an instant, with an infinitely condensed offseason set to follow — and unfortunately, just as the season has, the draft, training camp and, free agency are sure to feel the restrictions of COVID-19. With that in mind, we here at Basketball Insiders are taking another look at the coming offseason, specifically at the soon-to-be free agent class position-by-position.

Today, our first entry in our Free Agent Watch, we’ll look at the point guards. Let’s jump in.

Fred VanVleet, Toronto Raptors — Unrestricted — $9,000,000

Even with the salary cap expected to dip next season, don’t expect it to keep VanVleet to get anything less than his due.

Just 26, VanVleet is cruising into his prime and has already proven himself an essential fixture on a championship-caliber roster — don’t expect his services to come cheap, and don’t expect him to sit on the open market for long. With VanVleet, however, it isn’t so much about how much he may earn, but where he may earn it. The former undrafted free agent has seemingly made a home in Toronto, but the Raptors face a number of other pressing financial issues in addition to VanVleet’s upcoming free agency.

Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka, vital in their own right to Toronto’s championship run a season ago, are also set to hit the market. Meanwhile, Pascal Siakam’s contract extension, worth more than $30,000,000 per year through the 2023-24 season, is set to start next season as well. Do Masai Ujiri and Co. see VanVleet as a star to pair with Siakam in the long term, or would the Raptors opt instead to re-sign Gasol and Ibaka (or at least attempt to) in order to maintain a more balanced roster?

Only time will tell. Either way, and in spite of the current global financial downturn, expect VanVleet to get paid rather handsomely — certainly more so than any other point guard expected to hit the market — come free agency.

Goran Dragic, Miami HEAT — Unrestricted — $17,000,450

Relative to the other guards in the free agent crop, Dragic is old. But, even at 34, Dragic, who has transitioned to a reserve role in Miami, should continue to contribute at a high level over the next few seasons.

Dragic started just one game during the regular season, his fewest since his rookie year. That said, the reduced workload had proven a boon for his health; after a (mostly) lost 2018-19 season, in which Dragic played just 36 regular season games, he had rebounded mightily before the league was shut down. In 54 games, he averaged 16.1 points, 3.1 rebounds, 5.1 assists and shot 37.7 percent from three.

Given he’s made just three postseason appearances in his career, it wouldn’t shock anyone to see the 14-year veteran Dragic re-up with the HEAT — with Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo in the fold, Miami should find themselves in the thick of the postseason hunt over the life of Dragic’s next deal. Any other roster — and most would be more than happy to work him in — with a legitimate title shot in the next few seasons wouldn’t be much of a surprise, either.

Would an opportunity to start for around the same (or even higher) contract value persuade Dragic to join an up-and-coming roster or non-contender? It would seem unlikely, again citing his lack of postseason appearances, but it’s something to keep in mind.

Kris Dunn, Chicago Bulls — Restricted — $4,372,072

It would seem as if Dunn’s time in Chicago is over.

Coby White and Tomas Satoransky have displaced Dunn on the Bulls’ depth chart, while their presence would also preclude Chicago from matching any deal worth more than Dunn’s potential $7,091,457 qualifying offer. Meanwhile, the Bulls have a guaranteed lottery pick in a draft loaded with talent at the guard position.

So, what exactly would push Chicago to retain Dunn, or interest any team in adding him as a free agent? Elite defense.

Yes, Dunn has proven a bit limited on offense — he’s not exactly a score-first guard, and his ability as a passer isn’t spectacular, either. But Dunn is a defensive menace, a kind of player any roster looking to make noise in the postseason could take advantage of.

He may not garner the proper respect given the Bulls’ position near the bottom of the league, but Dunn made a legitimate case for an All-Defense nod in 2019; he was second to Ben Simmons in steals per game while he led all qualified players with 2.9 steals per 36 minutes.

Dunn is also more than capable of defending another team’s top offensive option and, given that he may not earn much next season, should prove a steal for any team looking to either shore up their defense or boost it to the next level.

Reggie Jackson, Los Angeles Clippers — Unrestricted — $734,025

Jackson may have the most to gain of nearly any player from the NBA’s restart.

Bought out by the Detroit Pistons back in February, Jackson was afforded the opportunity to aid the Clippers in their quest toward the NBA Finals. In doing so, he also has the perfect opportunity to recoup major value he had lost in recent seasons with Detroit.

In recent years, poor play, injury and a bad Pistons roster had relegated Jackson to the scrap heap, knocking him down from a once-promising (or breakout, even) player to an overpaid stat stuffer that didn’t necessarily help the team win games. Yes, on paper, Jackson’s Detroit tenure looked strong — 16.1 points, 2.7 rebounds, 5.2 assists, 35.4 percent three-point percentage in his four full seasons with the team.

But, when you take into account that the Pistons managed to finish with a winning percentage above .500 just once in those four seasons and never finished higher than eighth in the Eastern Conference, those stats start to feel empty.

If nothing else, Jackson needed a change of scenery, and looked strong in his few games with Los Angeles prior to the shutdown. In nine games with the Clippers, Jackson averaged 9.4 points, 2.9 rebounds, 3.2 assists and shot a blistering 52.5 percent from the field and 45.2 percent from three in 19.4 minutes per game.

He certainly wasn’t going to earn anything close to the 5-year, $80,000,000 deal he signed back in 2015. That said, Jackson, 30, is young enough that, if he can turn that mini-resurgence into an even stronger postseason performance, he shouldn’t have any trouble finding a long(ish)-term deal next season (and could maybe even play himself back into a prominent role).

Jeff Teague, Atlanta Hawks — Unrestricted — $19,000,000

Teague isn’t the “flashy” move. He certainly won’t swing a series or push a team into title contention.

That said, he’s still capable of solid production. Split between the Minnesota Timberwolves and Atlanta Hawks this season, Teague averaged 10.9 points, 5.2 assists and shot 43.6 percent from the field — not great, but good enough in spot duty and limited minutes off the bench.

Teague also shot 36.8 percent from three, making him a solid addition for any team that has struggled with their shot from the outside.

That said, most interest in Teague may come in his veteran presence. A quality leader, Teague also has plenty of playoff experience, having made the postseason in nine of his 12 seasons. With Vince Carter now retired, the Hawks may opt to bring him back to serve in a similar role, albeit at a massively reduced salary.

These five may prove the best of the bunch, but the point guard group set to hit the market is deep. Expect more than a few to prove solid additions capable of some serious impact. And with that, make sure to keep on the lookout for the rest of our positional Free Agent Watch series later this week.

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NBA Daily: The Return – 6 Situations – Pacific Division

David Yapkowitz continues Basketball Insiders’ “6 Situations” series by examining the most timely and pressing issues in the Pacific Division.

David Yapkowitz

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In less than a month, the NBA is set to resume the 2019-20 season in Orlando, Florida. And, in just a few short days, teams are set to report for an abbreviated training camp. With that in mind, we started a new series here at Basketball Insiders.

With basketball seemingly at our doorstep, we’re taking a look at some of the more pressing issues each team are set to face as they either make the trek down to Florida or wait at home for an abbreviated offseason. We’ve already covered the Atlantic, Central, Northwest and Southwest divisions and, today, we’ll go over the Pacific.

The Golden State Warriors are the lone team that isn’t set to take the trip to Orlando. That said, they have plenty on their plate, as do the Los Angeles Clippers, Los Angeles Lakers, Sacramento Kings and Phoenix Suns. Let’s get into it.

Golden State’s Draft Decisions and Andrew Wiggins Future

If the season does in fact resume without any COVID-19 interruptions, the 2019-20 playoffs are going to feel different without the Warriors. The team that has represented the Western Conference in the past five NBA Finals was dealt a major blow with injuries to both Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson. They spent much of the season trotting out young players and funky lineups, winding up in a good position to take home the No. 1 overall pick for their trouble.

Of course, what to do with that potential pick is the issue they must address. Both Curry and Thompson are expected to return to the court next season and the two of them, paired with a motivated Draymond Green, should find themselves in the midst of postseason contention. So, do the Warriors draft a player who they’ll potentially have to wait on to develop, or do they trade the pick, perhaps a veteran that could contribute right away?

The incoming rookie class is looking relatively top-heavy draft, with the potential to nab a possible star with a pick in the top five. Make the right pick, and Golden State could set themselves up for seasons to come. And, considering the franchise’s success with the draft (Curry, Thompson and Green were all drafted by the team), it’s easy to envision them making the right pick. That said, would they sacrifice that long-term success for a more immediate impact?

Meanwhile, Andrew Wiggins is another matter the Warriors may have to address. In somewhat of a shocking move, the Warriors traded away D’Angelo Russell after only half a season and got Wiggins in return. Wiggins is a talented player, albeit one that hasn’t exactly lived up to expectations as a former top pick and has seen continued criticisms of consistency.

That said, Wiggins is perhaps one of the keys that could accelerate the Warriors’ path back to contention. He’s a talented scorer and should prove a better fit with the team than Russell had and, with Curry and Thompson set to shoulder the offense, they won’t need him to do too much to return to prominence. But, his contract could become cumbersome — how long are the Warriors going to pay Wiggins’ salary for production that may prove no better than Harrison Barnes’ during his time with the team?

Kelly Oubre’s Future in Phoenix

When the Suns make the trip to Florida this month, they’ll be without one of their key players in Kelly Oubre Jr. Oubre, who went down with a torn right meniscus just before the NBA’s pause in March, will spend his time at home, recovering from said injury.

The 2020-21 season is going to be a big one for him, however.

Set for the final year of his contract and based on his play, Oubre would appear to be in line for a nice payday. Prior to the injury, Oubre was in the midst of a career year: 18.7 points per game, 45.2 percent shooting from the field and 35.2 percent shooting from the three-point line. It would seem to be a no-brainer to keep Oubre, who is only 24, as part of this young core.

The only thing that may complicate that a bit is the emergence of Mikal Bridges. In his second year in the NBA, Bridges impressed as he moved into the starting lineup and is poised to take advantage of Oubre’s absence from Orlando. And, next summer, just as Oubre is set to hit the market, Bridges will be eligible for an extension.

With Bridges in line for a rise, would Phoenix also pay Oubre to play much of the same role? The team re-signed him last summer to just a two-year deal, rather than something more long term and, next summer, they could risk losing him if they offer significantly less than some other teams are willing to pay.

Sacramento’s Push Forward

The Kings have been synonymous with futility for nearly a decade — lottery finish after lottery finish and they have almost nothing to show for it. They’ve been hampered by poor decision roster management. Their decision to draft Marvin Bagley III over say Luka Doncic is still up in the air, although many would tell you that it was a horrible choice.

What the team and fans can, and should, take to comfort however is that they are one of the teams being selected for the Orlando restart. When the NBA season was put on temporary hiatus, they were only a mere 3.5 games out of the eighth and final playoff spot in the West. They have a potential franchise cornerstone in De’Aaron Fox. They must do everything in their power to ensure that he stays a King. They ran DeMarcus Cousins out of town, they cannot afford to do that with Fox.

Whatever happens in Orlando, they need to continue their push forward, to maintain an upward trajectory. If they lose Fox, they may never recover as a franchise. They need to ensure that the franchise has nowhere to go but up, or they may risk losing the team to somewhere else entirely.

Lakers Championship Window and Anthony Davis Free Agency

When the Lakers signed LeBron James two years ago, there was little question that they were looking to get back on track as a championship contender. After a few years of lottery-bound teams and high draft picks, they managed to package those assets and bring in Anthony Davis to pair alongside James last offseason.

And, while James has shown no signs of slowing down, at 35 years old and with two more years left on his current contract, there are questions as to how open the Lakers’ potential championship window is. Had this season been scrapped altogether, that would’ve been another year lost for the Lakers and James.

What complicates matters further is the fact that Davis is set to hit free agency this offseason. When he arrived in Los Angeles, he was adamant about his decision not to sign a contract extension and allow himself to become a free agent. From a purely financial standpoint, it makes sense for him to do so — he can re-sign with the Lakers and earn even more money in the long term. But, if the Lakers fail to take home the title, could Davis turn into a potential flight risk?

Logic would say no, as the teams that stand to court Davis can’t offer nearly as much as the Lakers. But, if Davis doesn’t believe the roster can support him and his championship aspirations in the long term, anything is possible.

It may be unlikely, extremely so, even. But stranger things have happened, and it’s certainly worth keeping an eye on.

Clippers Championship Window

Who would’ve thought we’d ever say this, but the most pressing issue facing the Clippers is the exact same one as their across the hallway rivals, how big is their potential championship window? Injuries have been a bit of a concern for the Clippers this season, with both Kawhi Leonard and Paul George missing time for various reasons. Both have dealt with major injuries in the past and the “load management” the two may require going forward should be at least mildly concerning.

They also face the same scenario as the Lakers in that, were the season to be scrapped, 2020 would be another year down the drain, a year of health (something that is never a given in the NBA) wasted. And, aside from the injury possibility, both Leonard and George can enter free agency next offseason.

Both players have options on their contract, so the Clippers would probably like to take advantage of this restart and push for a title as quickly as possible. If they fail to win either this season or next, then the possibility of Leonard and George reevaluating their options could become a likely scenario.

If for some reason, the NBA is forced to scrap their plans for the season resumption, each of these teams will be affected. Perhaps none more than the Clippers and Lakers who, due to roster makeup, have to push for a title run as soon as possible.

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NBA Daily: The Return – 6 Situations – Atlantic Division

Drew Maresca continues Basketball Insiders’ “6 Situations” series by examining the most timely and pressing issues in the Atlantic Division.

Drew Maresca

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The NBA’s return grows nearer, but new doubts bubble up each day thanks numerous players testing positive for COVID-19 tests and surging virus numbers in numerous states — including Florida, where games will be hosted. Regardless as to whether or not we all agree with its return, we are fewer than 30 days away from NBA basketball. With that in mind, we at Basketball Insiders are going through each division and identifying “6 Situations” we feel are worth keeping an eye on. We’ve wrapped up work on the Northwest, Southwest and Central. Today, we get to the Atlantic Division.

The Atlantic Division is unique in that it’s the only division with four teams currently seeded in the NBA Playoffs (and one of three divisions with four teams returning for the final eight games). Still, many of the Atlantic Division’s major plotlines are rooted in the future and not the remaining eight games or the playoffs. There’s a lot of questions surrounding roster composition, coaching staffs and draft picks. So without further adieu, let’s explore the most compelling situations the Atlantic Division has to offer.

Knicks face another pressure-filled draft

The Knicks really, really need to make the right pick in the 2020 NBA Draft. They don’t necessarily need to win the draft lottery, but they must add another cornerstone player. They missed out on the opportunity to land a guaranteed star last year when they fell to the third overall pick in 2019 despite owning the worst record in the entire league — and that draft featured really only two sure things. They had almost as bad luck in 2018, when they won only 29 games (in 2017-18) and finished with only the ninth-worst record in a relatively star-studded draft. And so on and so forth.

But it’s not as if the Knicks are starting from scratch. There’s Mitchell Robinson, the 36th pick in the 2018 NBA Draft, who has exceeded any and all expectations set for him. There’s also RJ Barrett, who looks the part of at least a legitimate NBA starter – and maybe even, dare I say, a star. But that’s about all they can count on. Frank Ntilikina, Kevin Knox and Dennis Smith Jr. are promising, but possess red flags that hurt their standings with New York and their trade value around the league.

Much of the Knicks’ 2020 draft will be luck. They have the sixth-worst record in the league, so they possess only a 9% chance of winning the lottery and a 27.6% chance of landing a top-three pick. As much as “best player available” is an overused cliché (to the extent that it actually describes a bad strategy almost as often as it’s good), the Knicks should adhere to it. After all, they have so many needs and there’s really only one guy they’d prefer over everyone else (LaMelo Ball). Assuming they aren’t lucky enough to draft him, there’s still Killian Hayes, Deni Avdija, Isaac Okoro and Obi Toppin — of whom plug into the Knicks lineup nicely. Even James Wiseman or Anthony Edwards would be nice additions, although their fit is redundant with Robinson and Barrett already in two, respectively.

Long story short, there are lots of options for the Knicks. New York must: A) not slide down in the lottery, which is out of their hands; and B) avoid making a bad selection. Ultimately, a number of teams will consider trading away lottery picks, and the Knicks have a number of other first-round picks they can pair with their 2020 pick to move up. There are lots of options they can consider. They just can’t mess this one up.

While the draft is only partially in their control, the Knicks must also select the right coach

The Knicks have had five head coaches since Phil Jackson hired Derek Fisher in 2014, and they’ve had three team presidents. New team president Leon Rose appears to be fully invested in this coaching search though, lining up a number of interviews with some candidates, some of whom could also be auditioning for assistant roles. There are presently at least eight candidates, but there are clear front runners — and then ones who should remove themselves from consideration fairly quickly. The Knicks should almost certainly avoid chasing gimmicky candidates in hopes of them attracting additional talent — Jason Kidd is a good example. Luring Giannis Antetokounmpo sounds great, but the Knicks have been burned chasing star free agents before — and it’s definitely not a reason to hire a head coach. Another candidate the Knicks should probably avoid is Mike Woodson. Woodson is a brilliant defensive strategist, but he’s already led the Knicks. Granted, he led them farther than any other head coach since Jeff Van Gundy; but the Knicks need a coach to come in and motivate and teach their young roster — and while Woodson is seen as being player-friendly, he’s not thought of as a developer of talent.

Kenny Atkinson should get a long look. He was an assistant coach with the Knicks from 2008-2012, and he’s familiar with the pressure that goes along with being a head coach in New York (Brooklyn). More importantly, Atkinson is thought to be excellent at player development, which bodes well for his candidacy. Tom Thibodeau is another candidate thought under serious consideration. His relationship with Rose, his former agent, should make for a warmer interview.  The young Knicks are probably not entirely ready for Thibodeau’s intensity, but he would improve team defense, (probably) mold Frank Ntilikina into a DPOY candidate and bring unparalleled professionalism to the locker room.

There are other candidates who deserve a fair look, too – including interim coach Mike Miller, Mike Brown, Ime Udoka, Jamahl Mosley and Becky Hammon. There are almost too many candidates, but that’s a good problem to have. Now, all the Knicks have to do is pick correctly.

Can Jacque Vaughn solidify his future in Brooklyn?

The Nets were riding incredibly high this time last year (although we all were, relatively speaking). Now, not so much.

The Nets will return to action as the 7th seed in the Eastern Conference. There was essentially no chance of them leapfrogging Philadelphia, but they’re only a half-game up on Orlando. As much as we in the media built up the idea that Kevin Durant might return, that was always a very long shot. Even Kyrie Irving was unlikely to return given that he underwent shoulder surgery in early March. But still, Brooklyn’s young core could benefit from the opportunity to jell under coach Jacque Vaughn.

But much of what Brooklyn (and Vaughn) hoped to accomplish was predicated on the notion that the team was able to learn its recently appointed interim coach (and vice versa). Instead, they learned about Spencer Dinwiddie’s positive COVID-19 test, which will likely result in him missing the NBA’s return. Their (relatively) newly-appointed starting center DeAndre Jordan also announced that he was diagnosed with COVID-19 and that he’ll sit out the remaining games. They also received the unwelcome news that Wilson Chandler was opting out of the remainder of the season. Oh, and rookie Nic Claxton will also miss the rest of the year due to shoulder surgery. So can Coach Vaughn still make a case to return as the Nets head coach next season?

Ultimately, the Nets were never going to advance without Durant and Irving. Will it be even harder for Vaughn to prove his worth now? Maybe. Without Irving and Durant, the Nets were never going to advance beyond the first round, regardless of if they draw the Toronto Raptors or the Milwaukee Bucks. But the Nets front office, led by general manager Sean Marks, has been particularly adept at reading between the lines. They traded for D’Angelo Russell when his value was at its lowest, drafted Jarrett Allen and Caris LeVert and picked coach Kenny Atkinson. While it’s unclear if Vaughn is the best man for the job, he’ll certainly get an opportunity to make his case for it.

Will the 76ers’ “Process” come to fruition?

After taking the eventual 2019 NBA Champions to the last second of regulation in a game seven, the Philadelphia 76ers were identified as one of a select few teams to compete for the Eastern Conference crown. After a strong start that was solidified with an exclamation point in a Christmas Day win over the Milwaukee Bucks, they lost their way — going 16-16 after the holiday.

Their struggles resulted in (or from) injuries to their two best players — Ben Simons and Joel Embiid, who missed 11 and 21 games, respectively. It got so bad that rumors surfaced about the 76ers potentially moving one or the other as soon as this offseason.

But the play stoppage may result in some positives for Philadelphia. Both Simmons and Embiid had time to heal from their ailments. And while they are in the unfortunate position of being tied with the Indiana Pacers for the fifth seed, with Indiana holding the tiebreaker. Fortunately, Philadelphia has a pretty easy schedule with games against San Antonio, Washington, Orlando, Portland and Phoenix. They also play Indiana on Aug. 1. So the 76ers control their own destiny, at least as far as securing the fifth seed.

Unfortunately, their consolation prize would be a first-round matchup against Miami. While that’s a tall task for any team outside of the greater-LA area, Philadelphia needs to demonstrate progress. Organizationally, they’ve invested a lot of time in this rebuild. They’d like to see progress. In fact, the fate of this iteration of the 76ers might depend on at least advancing beyond the first round. If they don’t, Embiid and/or Simmons, coach Brett Brown and general manager Elton Brand could all be elsewhere as of next season.

Does a deep run mandate that the Raptors bring back their core, again?

The Raptors have been the biggest thorn in the side of this writer – pretty much all season. I saw a golden opportunity for them to rebuild on the fly. Masai Ujiri knew better. He brought back most of the 2018-19 lineup and, sure enough, Toronto is entering the final eight games as the second seed in the Eastern Conference.

That alone is far from a major victory, especially for the defending champions. Expectations traditionally remain high after winning. Even with Kawhi Leonard leaving town, the Raptors were clearly confident they could make a run. Further, there is the financial side of the business that probably factored in – remember, playoff games bring in significantly more revenue than the regular season. While that is in question now with games being hosted exclusively in Disney World, no one could have predicted the arrival of a pandemic when decisions were being made in the summer of 2019. And next year’s finances will present complications, too. Will the Raptors agree to continue spending without the guarantee of revenue? You can bet that the Knicks and Lakers will. Beyond them, nothing is certain in terms of spending.

But regardless if you believe in the direction taken by the Raptors for 2019-20 or not, they’ve out-performed expectations. If they fail to advance past even the Eastern Conference semifinals, there’s a strong case to be made for a quick rebuild. But if they advance the to the Conference Finals or beyond, can Ujiri convince ownership to get on board with dismantling a team that would have played in at least two straight conference finals and secured its first NBA Championship? In total, the team is only on the hook for about $85 million next year, but Fred VanVleet, Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol will all enter unrestricted free agency. The Raptors will have to open up their wallets to retain even two out of those three, which would be a necessity if they hope to compete again next season — and that could make their 2020-21 salary untenable.

Another interesting aspect – will Ujiri even return? Rumors circulated – as they always do when New York is involved – that the Knicks were preparing Ujiri a monster offer.  But they’ve since moved forward with new team president, Leon Rose. However, there are other high-profile teams that could use his help. Our very own Matt John wrote about a few in his The Hot Seat – Eastern Conference this past March. Philadelphia would be a great fit given how much talent they’re sitting on and their (likely) desire to improve if they don’t at least qualify for the conference finals. The Chicago Bulls are another team that could entice Ujiri to jump ship. Regardless, Toronto faces tough decisions following the 2020 NBA Playoffs.

Boston’s present looks great. But what’s next?

Like Toronto, the Boston Celtics are looking down the barrel at some interesting salary cap implications. Boston’s roster looks well-structured considering its relative youth and versatility. But the challenge lies in its future — can Boston add to its core to the extent that it builds a serious contender?

As mentioned above, freeing up the cap space needed to sign another star will be made more complicated by the restrictions that a smaller cap will introduce. Gordon Hayward has a $34 million player option for 2020-21. Prior to the monumental financial challenges presented by COVID-19, this writer expected him to opt-out and sign a long-term deal. But the salary cap will take a significant hit, and the days of teams handing out $30 million per year are probably over for now, at least for players who aren’t major difference makers. So, expect to see Hayward on Boston’s roster next season, as well as on their payroll. Ultimately, the Celtics will have approximately $100 million in guaranteed salary next season, which includes Enes Kanter’s player option and Tatum’s $9.89 cap hit, but not counting any other team options like Daniel Theis ($5 million), Robert Williams ($2 million) or Semi Ojeleye ($1.75 million).

Looking past next season, Tatum will almost certainly sign a long-term extension (this offseason, but his 2020-21 cap hit will be unaffected)  that cannibalizes much of Boston’s future cap space. There’s also the new CBA, which will be hurt by COVID-19, and the NBA and Daryl Morey’s dust-up with China, which originated last summer, to factor in.

So that leads us to an interesting question: Are the Celtics good enough to win a championship as is? If they decide the answer is no,  they’ll be severely restricted in what moved they can make. Long-term implications are difficult to anticipate; but in the short-term, Ainge and the Celtics should look to add veterans willing to sign lucrative, short-term deals, looking to chase championships. Players like Danilo Gallinari – although many in the know believe Gallinari will sign with Miami – or Derrick Favors would be good additions to the already talented Celtics. They’d add much-needed talent and (hopefully) accept slightly smaller roles for the opportunity to contend. And getting Tatum, Kemba Walker and Jaylen Brown to help with recruiting would go a long way.

Like all divisions, the Atlantic Division’s teams possess their share of issues to sort out. No Atlantic Division team is poised to win now, but many are on the right track. If these six situations are handled correctly, all five teams will be in better places in the near future.

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